| Beer, Cask ale, Pubs, Real Ale

Six Reasons Cask Ale-Loving Publicans Should Immediately Whack the Price Up*

(*Relative to other drinks they serve)

It sounds counter-intuitive. Especially when drinkers face the prospect of losing any disposable income we may have had. But all the available market data suggests that the best way to sell more cask ale is to make it more expensive in comparison to other drinks on the bar. Here’s why, in six handy points.

1. People who already drink cask are perfectly happy to pay more

Cask drinkers have always been, on the whole, older, more upmarket and more affluent than the average beer drinker. They have a higher than average income, and spend more on average when they go out to the pub. In one survey of reasons why they drink cask, “price” scores 10th on a list of 13 options, with just 21% saying it’s important, versus 53% citing “flavour” and 39% saying it’s important that it’s “brewed locally.” In a separate study, “better value for money” comes 8th in a list of ten factors, with 25% saying it’s relevant versus 74% again claiming “flavour” is what matters. 72% of all ale drinkers say they tend to buy quality rather than quantity, compared to 44% who say they tend to be influenced by what’s on special offer.

It’s worth noting that cask ale drinkers are drinking less cask ale than they did. What are the drinking instead? Craft beer in other formats such as keg. 67% of all craft keg beer sells for north of £5 per pint, whereas over 70% of cask ale sells for less than £4 a pint.

Cask ale drinkers are telling us they care about quality more than price, and proving this by switching from cask to drinks that are far more expensive.

2. Non-cask drinkers already think – wrongly – that cask is more expensive than the fancy Mediterranean lagers they’re currently drinking. So what have you got to lose?

Get a load of this recent story from spoof news website The Daily Mash:

It’s a funny story – ignorant and badly informed, based on a premise that’s entirely false – but funny nonetheless. On average, cask ale is cheaper than any other pint on the bar apart from bog-standard cooking lager. And yet, the rapier wits at the Mash aren’t the only people who believe it’s eye-wateringly expensive.

In a survey of beer drinkers who do not drink cask ale, when asked what the barriers, are, “price” comes second in a list of 15 possible reasons, just behind “taste”, and well ahead of the clichés we all tell ourselves matter, such as the perception it’s warm (3rd), old-fashioned (6th) or flat (9th). Almost by definition, these people are already drinking beer that’s more expensive than cask ale is in reality. So putting the price up isn’t going to deter them any more than they already are. And they could afford it just fine if they had a reason to want to buy it.

But why do they think it’s so much more expensive than it really is? Partly, people assume darker beers are more expensive. Many also mistakenly believe cask is on average higher in ABV than other beers, and therefore more expensive. But the main reason, to my mind, is that outside the beer bubble, among the vast majority of drinkers and in places like the Daily Mash, people see cask ale and craft beer as synonymous. (And why shouldn’t they?) Check out this splash from a feature in the Guardian from 2019: A “craft beer enthusiast’s guide to Manchester”… illustrated with a pic of six cask ale handpumps.

If craft beer is expensive relative to other drinks (and it is) and real ale is the same as craft beer, then that’s also going to be expensive – isn’t it? Makes you wonder why the opposite is true.

In terms of price, non-drinkers of cask wrongly assume it is priced close to craft beer. You could always seek to correct this perception and point out how cheap cask is… but you’d be wrong to do so.

3. People are increasingly choosing more premium products across the board

“Premiumisation” has been one of the dominant trends in marketing for at least the past thirty years, and it’s not going away. For anyone above the poverty line, there’s a basic version of most consumer goods that’s easily affordable. As status-driven beings, we therefore actively seek out premium versions of the products that matter to us, to help us stand out and feel special. Yeah, you do.

In beer, this is why Peroni exists. The most recent example of premiumisation across the board is the performance of different beer styles as the on-trade had opened back up post-pandemic, versus their relative price. As a general rule, the more expensive something is (the blue bar) the better its volume performance when comparing 2022 with pre-pandemic 2019 (the red bar). The best performing segment in the whole of the on-trade drinks is “Mediterranean lager”, likely to be the most expensive mainstream beer on the bar, beaten only by craft. Standard lager and cask ale – the cheapest pints on the bar – are performing worse than anything else in the pub.

People are premiumising their drinks choices because they’re going to the pub less often and so need things to be a bit more special when they do go. It’s not necessarily that they WANT to spend more – but they are PREPARED to spend more rather than accept something they see as inferior.

4. This applies even – especially – during economic hard times

When money is tight, certain types of treat become more, not less, important. Premium versions of mainstream brands tend to do best during economic downtimes: “I can’t afford a nice holiday. I can’t afford a new car. Sod it, I’m going to splash out on a more expensive cut of meat/fresh orange juice/morning coffee.”

In June, CGA Strategy asked a broad range of consumers, “If your disposable income is reduced as a result of rising costs, which of the following do you plan to prioritise for spending over the next 12 months?” People were given 12 options for things they were most reluctant to cut down on, and invited to tick as many as they liked. The top answer was “visits to hospitality venues”, with 35% saying this would be important to them – double the percentage who cited entertainment packages such as Netflix.

Having said that, people still believe they will be spending less money overall on going out. But how are they planning on economising? The top answers revolve round going out less often, and drinking less when they do. Choosing cheaper, less premium versions of what they drink came second-bottom, with just 12% saying they’d consider this, just below visiting less premium outlets. More people said that the cost of living crisis will make them MORE LIKELY to choose quality/premium drinks (32%) than those who say it will make them LESS LIKELY (28%).

Economic hardship makes us more, not less, likely to choose more expensive/premium drinks.

5. Pub groups actively don’t want to sell more cask right now

So here’s a weird and slightly unsettling thing. At the beer industry seminar for which I gathered all this research, CAMRA and SIBA presented a new marketing campaign to get people to drink more cask ale. They’re seeking funding from across the industry to get it going. After the presentation, there was some grumbling from some people in the room who run groups of pubs. They protested that if the campaign were successful, it might make people drink cask ale rather than drinking other beers. Given that they were there because they are part of an industry body called Cask Matters, you might think they saw this as a good thing, not to say the whole damn point. But no: they were concerned about this possibility. Their pubs are struggling. The last thing they want just now is for people to stop drinking expensive world lager or craft beer, which pays pubs a decent margin, and start drinking more cask beer, which delivers a lower margin, instead. Therefore, with relative prices as they are, large pub groups are likely to OPPOSE any marketing activity that seeks to grow cask at the expense of other beer. We are in the ridiculous situation where companies selling cask beer – sometimes even companies that brew it – are potentially actively opposed to growing cask ale’s share of total beer.

Let’s be frank: if this remains the case, cask beer is utterly fucked outside the specialist independent pubs that make it their mission. The only possible way of changing this is to raise the price of cask beer relative to other beers on the bar.

6. Where cask is more expensive now, it actually sells more

If you still aren’t convinced, if you need one final argument, it’s this: where cask ale is more expensive on the bar currently, it actually sells more quickly. Surveying 4765 pubs across the country in 2019, CGA strategy found that in pubs where a pint of cask cost more than £3.70, it sold 32.5% more pints than in places where it cost less. Stripping out London and looking at the rest of the UK, it sold 9.5% more pints where it was selling for more than £3.45.

Now – chances are, these pubs were not just selling cask more expensively. They were probably nicer pubs charging a premium across the board. Interestingly, drinkers tend not to judge price in absolute terms. You know that in one venue, drinks generally are going to cost more than in another venue. If you’ve ever chosen to go to a nice pub instead of a nearby Wetherspoons, you know what I mean.

Across ale generally, the brands that are succeeding are the brands that are most expensive. Check out the growth in the top ten ale brands (cask and keg) between 2019 and 2022:

Beavertown Neck Oil has grown by 482% since before the pandemic – I guess not many people are too bothered by it selling out to Heineken. A substantial chunk of this growth will be due to Heineken’s powerful sales force shoving it out to pubs across the country. But even if simple distribution growth were responsible for, say, 70-80% of this growth, it’s clearly still selling like hotcakes in the pubs it’s flying into. This proves that drinkers have a thirst for a flavourful, sessionable pale ale – if it looks good on the bar, comes in a nice branded glass etc. The growth of Camden Pale makes the same point, somewhat less emphatically.

When we get to cask, the only brand in the top ten experiencing similarly strong growth is Timothy Taylor Landlord – a beer that sells into the trade at a higher price than its rivals, is less likely to do deals on price, and therefore tends to cost more at the bar.

So there are lots of contributing factors to this, and it’s not necessarily a direct correlation. But the data shows that if you’re keeping and selling cask properly, you can charge more for it – and sell more of it as a result.

The cask ale industry is currently in a pricing death spiral. Pubs are looking to buy it as cheaply as possible, and among 2000 breweries serving a shrinking market, there’s always a brewer who will undercut their rival. This is stripping value out of the market, which is why small brewers are switching to keg, publicans are often keeping cask badly, there’s not enough investment in marketing it to make it relevant to image-conscious, promiscuous drinkers, so it’s staying on the bar too long, so it tastes shit, so even die-hard cask drinkers are going “Hmm… not sure about the quality in here. Best stick with a Neck Oil just to be safe.”

Just put the fucking price up, guys.

I was a marketer long before I was a beer writer, and I still like to keep my hand in. For more marketing insight, sign up to my regular industry newsletter, or get exclusive, paywalled content via my Patreon. If you’d like to have a chat about you business specifically, drop me a line.

6 Comments

6 Comments

Andras Borbiro

I am a fan of cask ale, although I am able to drink it very seldom, because of living in Hungary. But I follow cask-related blogs. Here is hoping that industry members and independent publicans will follow your advice, I really hope that the cask ale culture will remain wide-spread. 🙂 (I have even ordered a pull tap for my home-brewing tap system, although I have yet to make it work – it is tricky!)

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Erik Rautio

I have travel to Gothenburg (200km) to drink Cask ale. The pub serves often excellent Ales fromTimothy Taylors and other classic great breweries. But When I come to London and order Ales from let say Green King or Badger Hall & Woodhouse the beers are either Green (too Young) or they have gone south in the cask. This from pubs one would really think would have the knowhow.

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Steve Pereira (SilkTork)

Not sure of your logic here Pete.

One of the main reasons put forward for craft keg being more successful than cask (craft or traditional) is that it is perceived as a premium product, and the premium price assists with that perception.

You say that those who are currently drinking cask put quality above price; also, that these drinkers are in decline. So how would adjusting the price upwards persuade those drinkers who already perceive cask as a premium product that it is more premium / better tasting because it is now more expensive? Where’s the argument that equalising the price difference between keg and cask would stop cask drinkers shifting to keg. It seems to me to be more likely to increase the shift to keg if there’s no price differentiation as cask drinkers would be more likely to experiment, and then discover that the craft keg is not as terrible as they thought, and is in surprisingly better condition than the all too often neglected cask.

You also say that non-cask drinkers already perceive cask as expensive, but they are not moving to it. I would assume they are not moving to cask not because it’s cheap (they already think its expensive), but because its image is wrong for them.

I don’t see making cask more expensive in itself as any kind of answer to the decline of cask. Rather it would be in other areas that are in your report but not focused on: marketing and promotion. Craft beer has been successful largely through some very clever marketing which has got drinkers thinking of it as modern, trendy, rebellious, independent, interesting, worthwhile, etc. The price justifies the marketing.

Cask, of course, has a shit image, largely thanks to CAMRA. When CAMRA launched in the Seventies, CAMRA was the rebel. Today it is the Establishment. It is seen as old, fuddy duddy, and boring.

To make cask more interesting the image needs to shift, and that would begin with cask brewers disassociating themselves from CAMRA, and forming a new, vibrant, and fun organisation which presents cask as both quality and on-trend.

What is needed is appropriate marketing (which could be accompanied by an upshift in price), rather than a desperate hike in price without any other attempt to adjust the market image.

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PeteBrown

Yeah, I’m kind of with you here. The image is key. Cask needs to be perceived as a more premium product. I was thinking that is a separate post in its own right. There are so many issues here I wanted to separate them out. Price alone won’t fix everything but it would at least create a bit of extra margin for struggling publicans and brewers in the meantime.

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Ben Klinck

You have obviously not been to Weatherspoons. Cask beer is a traditional group of beer styles appreciated by many people, not only those who have money to burn on foreign holidays and new cars. Supporting your local real ale outleT would go a long way to shifting more beer.

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PeteBrown

How is it obvious I’ve never been to Wetherspooons?

Cask ale is a traditional group of beer styles? Fuck me, is it really? I never knew that.

Where have I argued cask is only for people with money to burn?

Supporting your local real ale outlet? What do you think the point of this piece is if not that?

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